December is a time to reflect on what has come before, whether during the previous year, decade, or even an entire lifetime. And if you’re not interested in thinking about your own life, there are thankfully plenty of excellent biographies and memoirs out there to get lost in. The end of the year is an excellent time for this kind of reading, and this year offers plenty of intriguing reads that cover a wide variety of interests, from far into the reaches of history to modern times, from well-known names to people whose names may have once been unknown but whose stories will now never be forgotten. These picks will inspire readers to both ponder on their own pasts and to think about what their futures may hold.

Passing: A Memoir of Love and Death
By Michael Korda
Liveright, $24.95, 224 pages

Author and editor Michael Korda is well-known in certain literary circles for his beautiful prose and strong attention to detail. In this memoir, Korda takes on a story very near and dear to his own heart: his beloved wife’s brain cancer diagnosis and the fight that marked her final months before succumbing to the disease. Despite their tumultuous beginning together, Margaret had long been a pillar of strength in Korda’s life, so her diagnosis and subsequent unraveling was incredibly hard for him to bear. Korda delves deep into a world of caregiving, surgery, confusing medical jargon, and, ultimately, submission to the inevitable. This is a story that readers won’t soon forget.

Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire
By Alan Gallay
Basic Books, $40.00, 576 pages

In school history classes, Sir Walter Ralegh is a name that is covered, but not in any sort of depth. We know that he was a favorite of the venerable Queen Elizabeth. We know he attempted to found the Roanoke colony. But there is so much more to his story, and in this biography, author Alan Gallay offers readers a fresh and nuanced perspective on this great colonizer. Readers will learn how Ralegh was a frontrunner in building the English Empire, leading attempts to colonize North America, South America, and even Ireland. Be prepared to learn a new side of this period of world history.

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini
By Joe Posnanski
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, $28.00, 336 pages

Harry Houdini is a name nearly everyone is familiar with. We’ve all heard of the great magician so well-known for his disappearing acts and great escapes. But how much does the average person know about his life? How much do we know about the many ways in which his legacy has lived on? Journalist Joe Posnanski aims to educate us all about the great Houdini with this book, which is so much more than just a biography. Readers will follow a meandering path through the years since Houdini’s death and meet a wide variety of people who have been deeply influenced by the art he practiced. 

King Charles: The Man, the Monarch, and the Future of Britain
By Robert Jobson
Diversion Books, $27.99, 336 pages

Prince Charles has waited a very long time to ascend to the British throne, but as the Queen ages and slowly hands over various duties to him there is rampant speculation on just what kind of king he will be. In this book, Robert Jobson takes his years of personal encounters with the Prince of Wales and draws some solid conjectures about what we can all expect once Prince becomes King. This positive and uplifting account is sure to give readers hope for the future of the British monarchy.

The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip
By Jeff Guinn
Simon & Schuster, $28.00, 320 pages

Most people do not know that automobile maker Henry Ford and prolific inventor Thomas Edison were friends. But they were, and one of the little-known quirks of their friendship was a roughly ten-year tradition of taking trips together over the summer. Christening themselves the Vagabonds, the two men and various friends, plus an entourage of staff, traveled all over the country. In this book, Jeff Guinn explores this relatively unknown historical tidbit, and how the ensuring media coverage inspired an enduring American tradition.